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Washington Gets Back to Its Day Job

After years of busting its deadlines, Washington rediscovers what matters with the latest round of budgets.

Obama's motorcade at the Capitol on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Washington is a town of strange words and even stranger habits.

It doesn’t take very many drinks to provoke a lively debate over the proper usage of our Latinized words for across-the-board spending cuts. Is it the verb, “sequester”? Or is it the noun, “sequestration”? Serious people seriously argue over this linguistic riddle—in no small part because the verb sounds like a noun and the noun sounds like a verb.

“Deliverable” is another oddly Washingtonian word. It is used elsewhere, of course, but not very much, and nowhere but Washington does it carry any professional weight. Owning a deliverable, handling a deliverable, or delivering a deliverable mean something here—regardless of whether that which is being delivered matters at all.


The budget used to be a deliverable—a yearly one.

It had a quaint ceremony built around it, heralded by the State of the Union address. Days later, the president’s budget would arrive on Capitol Hill, evoking either envy or indifference.

It is of no small import that the budget ritual was not merely a matter of custom but a matter of law. The Congressional Budget Act of 1974 carried a simple intent: Make the budget process (hark!) more transparent and predictable and also give Congress a separate accounting entity (the Congressional Budget Office) to counterbalance the Office of Management and Budget in the White House. Under the law, the president submitted his budget no later than mid-February (and often much sooner), and House and Senate Budget committees took testimony from OMB and the White House—applying the first of many layers of political and policy scrutiny.

The law also required the House and Senate to pass separate budget resolutions by April 15. This deadline usually slipped. From 1974 to 2010, Congress made the deadline only six times, according to the Congressional Research Service. On average, the House and Senate budget resolutions were finished within 37 days of April 15—meaning before Flag Day. From 1974 to 2010, Congress failed to pass a budget resolution four times (1998, 2002, 2004, and 2006).

Within budget resolutions, very important decisions were made, namely, assigning specific discretionary-spending limits and creating a (jargon alert) reconciliation vehicle for changes to tax and entitlement policy. The last, most important use of reconciliation was as the crucible for the Affordable Care Act. Before this came the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts.

This entire ritual, sadly, began to fall out of favor after the 2010 election—though not among House Republicans. President Obama’s budget seemed to have less importance and was delivered in a more perfunctory manner. Senate Democrats ignored the 1974 budget law entirely, passing no budget resolutions in 2010, 2011, or 2012 and approving appropriations bills rarely and always under duress.

Instead, phony, trumped-up Washington deliverables replaced the legally required ones. The list includes—but is not limited to—government shutdowns, debt ceilings, super committees, the fiscal cliff, and now sequester (or is it sequestration?).

Now deliverables are back in vogue.

The House and Senate will pass budgets and may well do so before Obama delivers his own budget the week of April 8. Obama’s blueprint, the White House says, was hopelessly delayed by the fiscal cliff and sequestration. No matter. Obama is a budget bystander, at least in terms of numbers on paper. In fact, he would be better served writing his budget on a napkin and sending it around the table at his next lobster thermidor fete with congressional Republicans. If there is to be a grand bargain, it will first be drafted there.

This is the other big deliverable. Obama talks to lawmakers. He also, apparently, allows them to talk back to him. This occurrence is so rare, so at odds with his legendary disdain for face-to-face give-and-take that it is being greeted with the kind of fascination typically reserved for genetic mutations—like a fluorescent newt or hairless cheetah. Obama is delivering some actual presidential power to a big question of the day: how to reconcile divergent budget concepts amid divided government.

It is no coincidence this is occurring as the Senate watched a very real and very effective filibuster. This is another deliverable. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., spoke for nearly 13 hours on civil liberties in an era of invisible and possibly unchecked government-drone lethality. Paul’s actual filibuster (as opposed to the contemporary contrivances that carry the name) delivered a result. The White House offered its first, specific limitation on drone use in America during a war on terrorism. The answer did not satisfy everyone. And the question might not have been the best or wisest. But it was a question that begat an answer. Power approached power, and a new reality formed. A deliverable.

House Republicans have a budget that seeks to abolish Obamacare, cut the top tax rate from 39.6 percent to 25 percent, transform Medicare 10 years from now to a voluntary voucher system, and give governors more budget-cutting discretion over Medicaid and welfare. Senate Democrats want nearly $1 trillion in new tax revenue through the closing of loopholes and tax “expenditures.” It also seeks $275 billion in savings from health care providers (not beneficiaries) and $242 billion from defense spending.

What these budgets say is one part of the story. Republicans have dutifully passed budgets since regaining control of the House. That they will again back a budget that did not help their nominee win the presidency and cost them House seats says something about their tenacity. Senate Democrats have now taken Obama’s reelection and their two-seat gain and written a budget with more taxes and less entitlement reform than even Obama can stomach (no changes to the consumer price index, for example).

What matters more, however, is the fact that two different budgets exist. They are deliverables. They will be tested on the floor with real amendments. The political process will find something different between the two—possibly with Obama’s lobster-thermidorian intercession. But even if nothing comes of Obama’s dinners or his confabs with congressional caucuses of both parties, he is beginning to exercise presidential power differently. And Congress is relearning the power it used to wield as a matter of course: writing and reconciling a budget.

Washington is getting back to its day job.

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